Goth Sonnets

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

Once upon a time in Italy, Robert Browning sat scrutinizing a poem in progress. As he plumbed the depths of his brain for the exact word to fit his meaning and his meter, he heard the quick pitter-patter of feet lightly descending the stairs. Before he could turn around, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, warning him not to look behind him. His wife slid her hand into his pocket, deposited a packet and fled. He saw only the swish of her skirt and a hint of crimson cheek through her thick hair as she retreated to a room of her own. Intrigued, and probably a bit aroused, Robert hastily pulled the papers from his pocket and became the first person to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Robert Browning had to convince Elizabeth (let’s call her EBB) to publish the poems. She was hesitant to allow the public to read the deeply personal love poems she wrote to her husband. So, they titled them Sonnets from the Portuguese and pretended that she discovered them and translated them. I think of them as EBB’s Goth Sonnets because she her tone is self-effacing and melancholy. She describes herself as a drooping, tragic, gloom-monster who was destined to a life of weeping misery until Robert Browning shined his brilliant, amethyst light on her.

I always want to call Robert Browning “Robert Barrett Browning,” because it seems logical for married poets to exchange names as well as aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Also, Elizabeth was older, wealthier, higher class and more professionally successful than her husband at the time of their marriage. But, ya know, gender issues.

Without those pesky gender issues EBB might have been named poet laureate over Tennyson. She was quite influential in her time, to the point that she influenced child labor laws. Through poetry. Poetry!

The most famous sonnet is number 43:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The sonnets are all very similar. I recommend them to people who are looking for poetry that represents love in an optimistic light. Most poets like to write about sad, bitter, destructive, doomed, tragic love. Sonnets from the Portuguese conveys love as spiritually uplifting and healing. I know that doesn’t sound Goth, but the trick is that while EBB describes herself as sad, love is the light that lifts her up out of her sadness. So, yes these poems have notes of melancholy, but they still depict love positively.

You might like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you like poems about love.
  • you’re secretly Goth inside.
  • you’re interested in real life romance between literary figures.

You might not like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you have no time for self-deprecation.
  • you’re just not that into sonnets.

Final thoughts: EBB was a talented poet. If you like poetry, you should read some of hers. Also, Valentine’s Day is coming up. There’s still time to embroider a sonnet onto a pillow for your loved one. Cuz who doesn’t love a pillow with a sonnet embroidered on it. (internal feminine rhyme, y’all)

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Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

witch of atlas

The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere

 

Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

The Corsair

The Corsair, Lord Byron, 1814

For a swashbuckling good time try Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a truly epic epic poem about everybody’s favorite type of outlaw: pirates!  If you like your pirates tall, dark and angsty you will love Conrad, the leading man.  Lord Byron kind of invented tall, dark and angsty.  No, really, he developed a new literary prototype inspired by himself.  Gone is the valiant, morally righteous young whippersnapper/knight errant.  Enter the Byronic hero!  He’s a smart, moody outcast.  He’s mysterious, cynical and sexy.  He’s an introverted rebel who scorns social norms and society generally.  Most importantly, he has a dark, guilty past that torments his conscience.  Yum.

Byron introduced this self-modeled hero in the epic poem Childe Harolde, a semi-autobiographical travelogue that I started reading and then was all “naw.”  I found it boring and obscure.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that boring and obscure is right up my alley, but I am definitely not the perfect reader of Childe Harolde.  I am not familiar with the ins and outs of world events circa 1814 or with the landmarks of continental Europe.  When Byron refers to Colonel Thus-and-Such by some nickname, the allusion goes right over my head, because I’ve never heard of said Colonel or his diminutives.  So, I skipped Childe Harolde and moved straight on to The Corsair.  Whooeee, so much more fun.

Our anti-hero, Conrad, inspires extreme loyalty in his band of followers despite his dour demeanor.  One day he’s sitting in his pirate hideout feeling a little glum about the troubled past that got him rejected from society.  He decides to distract himself with his favorite occupation: piracy!  It’s going to take a big victory to get him out of this funk, so he sets his sight on the home city of his arch nemesis.  Enemy #1 is Seyd, a higher up in the Ottoman Empire.  Conrad says goodbye to his beloved, sneaks into his rival’s palace and sets that place on fire!  He’s feeling pretty good about himself when he sees that Seyd’s harem is burning.  Oh no!  Conrad will kill men left, right and center in the name of. . .robbing them, but no women.  Ok?  No women!   He orders his men to run into the flaming harem and carry out a flaming lady.  They prove their loyalty by following him into that burning building.  Amid the smoke Conrad blindly clutches for a lady and runs out with her.  Turns out she’s Seyd’s lead sex slave and she has such lovely charms.  Her name is Gulnare, which is unfortunate, but I guess it rhymes with stuff.

Gulnare

Turning back to rescue the women costs Conrad the battle.  He gets captured.  Fortunately (?), Gulnare has fallen in love with Conrad, duh.  Inspired by her love, she sneaks into Seyd’s chambers at night and assassinates the bejesus out of him, thus enabling Conrad’s escape.  Conrad had been feeling some uncomfortable sensations of attraction toward the lovely Gulnare, but now that she’s a murderer he is completely repulsed by her.   This guy kills people professionally and steals their lucre.  But girls are supposed to be sweet and innocent, ya know.  I can’t get over what a stinking hypocrite Conrad is.   If murder is ever justifiable, and I’m not exactly saying that it is, killing the man who has made you his sex slave has got to be near the top of justifiable slayings.  Way more morally correct than killing someone because they have money and you want it.  Uhhhhhhhhhhgh.

Gulnare

Warning: feminist rant commencing now.  If you are a patriarch it makes sense to perpetuate the idea that women should never dirty their hands.  I know that I am probably about to make the error of conflating Byron with his character.  In my defense, Byron typically tells the reader when he thinks his characters are making an error of judgment.  I really thought he was going to point out how ridiculous Conrad is being when he scorns Gulnare’s crime.  But he doesn’t.  So, he perpetuates the patriarchal precept that if a woman is in a terrible situation she should just stay in it rather than lift her hand to free herself.  Rage.  Remember ladies, if you are feeling oppressed, don’t ever fight back.  It’s unfeminine.

Anyway, aside from this giant glaring flaw, I really loved this poem.  Byron is a fantastic poet.  He really made me feel zeal for the open ocean and other piratey emotions.  Let me supply you with a quote:

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danced in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense—the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?

 

You might like The Corsair if:

  • you love swashbuckling.
  • you like The Three Musketeers.
  • you are looking for “Pirates of the Caribbean” in epic poem form.

 

You might not like The Corsair if:

  • you have no interest in the Romantic Era or epic poetry.

 

Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this poem.  If you are curious about epic poetry and want to see if you have the appetite for it, The Corsair is a good starting point.  It’s not too long and it has a lot of spirit.  As far as long poems go, this one is easy to love.

Queen Mab

Queen Mab

Queen Mab, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1813

Queen Mab is Shelley’s first long poem.  Based on the title I was hoping for a mystical, Arthurian tale about a Fairy Queen.  No such luck.  The Mab of this poem is more of a philosopher than a ruler.  The poem contains neither knights nor dragons, but is chock full of vitriol.  Shelley’s Mab is a dusky, ethereal, nebulous, purple beauty who appears riding a chariot through the dawn sky.  She spies just the prettiest, sweetest blonde mortal you can imagine, innocently sleeping.  Based on how lovely and sinless she looks in her slumber, Mab decides to separate the maiden’s unspoiled soul  from her exquisite form so she can take her into outer space and impart some knowledge on her.

Please forgive me, I have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to excel at philosophy.  So, my summary of this poem may lack clarity and intellectual rigor.  Anyway, Queen Mab uses her magic viewy-thing to show all of. . .human history, I guess, to the disembodied Spirit.  Cuz her job now, as the disembodied Spirit of a virtuous maiden, is to know about all of human history; past, present and future.  I’m not sure why.  Anyway, Shelley’s summary of human history is quite misanthropic.  Three strongly held opinions emerge: tyrants are bad, nature is good, religion is evil and the cause of all suffering.  Unlike most poets before the Modern Era, Shelley wears his atheism loud and proud.  Good for him, I say.  Freedom of religion should include freedom to not have religion.

This poem is bit of a jumbled mess.  It left me wondering “What?  Why?  I mean, sure, I guess.”  However, Percy Bysshe Shelley sure does know his way around imagery.  Listen to this amazing thing he wrote about lizard love:

“Those deserts of immeasurable sand,

Whose age-collected fervours scarce allowed

A bird to live, a blade of grass to spring,

Where the shrill chirp of the green lizard’s love

Broke on the sultry silentness alone”

Aw, lizard love calls!  Aw.  Shucks.

You might like Queen Mab if:

  • you are looking for corroboration of your misanthropic, atheist world view.

You may not like Queen Mab if:

  • you like epic stories in your Romantic poetry.

Final thoughts: I’m hoping the other long Shelley poems on the list will have more plot to them.

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott, 1810

The Lady of the Lake is an epic poem set in medieval Scotland.  Surprisingly, the title is probably not a reference to Arthurian myth.  When I got to this poem on the list, I really thought I was going to have to jump in a lake in the middle of February and hold up a sword.  I would have done it too, but fortunately the titular Lady simply lives near, not in, a lake.

I had a hard time following the plot of this poem, but I’ll do my best to lay out the scenario for you.  A knight is out hunting and gets lost in the mystical Scottish wilderness.  He sees a beautiful maiden (he can tell she’s a maiden, because Scottish maidens at this time braided ribbons into their hair to indicate that they were unwed and. . .unspoilt) paddling a little boat on a lake.  She is wary of him at first, but noble ladies do not allow noble men to go without food and shelter, so she invites him back to her abode.  Don’t worry, there’s an old bard and some other servants there too.

What follows is not so much a love triangle, but a love square with three men competing for the hand of our maiden.  Oh, and hidden identities.  The knight is King James V.  The maiden is Ellen Douglas, the daughter of his former friend and advisor turned enemy.  Roderick Dhu, a bloodthirsty highland chief who has been helping Ellen’s fugitive father, thinks he’s earned her hand in marriage.  However, Ellen only has eyes for Malcolm Graeme, a lithe young whippersnapper in Roderick Dhu’s retinue.

In my opinion, Scott does a poor job of introducing characters.  By the end of the poem, I had a solid grasp of the temperaments of all our main guys and gals, but it was difficult to understand who was who in the beginning.  “The Lady of the Lake” is not my favorite epic poem, but it does have some highlights.  There is an exciting battle scene involving boats sneaking up on a dear little island.  Canto IV describes a very spooky Druidic sacrifice committed by Roderick Dhu’s priest.  That canto is a strong and entertaining bit of poetry worth reading on its own.

Here’s a quote of Ellen Douglas sarcastically explaining why she does not admire Roderick Dhu:

I grant him liberal to bring,

When back by lake and glen they wind

And as in the Lowland leave behind,

Where once some pleasant hamlet stood,

A mass of ashes slaked with blood.

 

You might like this poem if:

  • you are one of those Scots who is obsessed with romanticized Scotland of yore.

You might not like this poem if:

  • following narratives in poetic form is difficult for you.

 

Final thoughts: “The Lady of the Lake” is not the greatest poem in the English language, but it’s an enjoyable romantic vision of medieval Scotland.

The Curse of Kehama

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

Lorrinite the evil sorceress.

The Curse of Kehama, Robert Southey, 1810

So here I am reading about poets on Wikipedia as I am wont to do and I see something about a Robert Southey.  He was one of the Romantics and part of the Lake Poet group that includes Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Despite holding the title Poet Laureate for 30 years, he is not so well known today.  I was thinking of skipping him until I saw his poem titled “The Curse of Kehama.”  Well, if there’s a curse, I’m in!  I prefer sorcery and mystical beasts in my literature.

Let me tell you gang, this poem has it all!  (I want to you read this list in your most enthusiastic voice, so you get an impression of how excited I am about this poem.)

  • Dragons
  • Tigers
  • Curses
  • Vengeance
  • Sea monsters
  • Elephant gods
  • Statues that come to life
  • An evil sorceress
  • A ghost
  • A trip to the underworld
  • Romance between a mortal and some sort of demi-god with wings  Wings!
  • Underdogs overcoming the odds
  • Many-armed deities
  • An underwater temple
  • Potential apocalypse
  • A tyrant
  • Dancing

I mean, dang.  “The Curse of Kehama” is kind of a Frankenstein’s monster of a poem.  It is an incredibly long epic poem, about 250 pages.  Let me define that term for all you non-English majors.  An epic poem is simply a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds and victory over some sinister force.  Southey sets the action in India, but the poem contains a hodgepodge of Hindu, Greek, Christian and Zoroastrian mythology.  Or so I read; I wouldn’t recognize Zoroastrian mythology if it appeared before me incarnate.  Unlike many poets, Southey does not stick to any one meter, rhyme scheme or stanza length.  Which is fine by me.

Kehama is a powerful sorcerer and raja.  The poem begins with the funeral of his son, Arvalan, who was killed by a peasant, Ladurlad, when Arvalan tried to force himself on Ladurlad’s daughter.  Arvalan’s character is not improved by death.  He makes a nasty ghost.  Kehama curses Ladurlad to a life of perpetual agony.  He is constantly in pain and can seek no relief.  Wind, water, fire and even plants shun him.  He is also immune to blows from weapons, so he can’t escape his curse through death.  Do you see what Kehama did there?  He inadvertently turned Ladurlad into an unstoppable superhero who can walk into fire, withstand any assault and go to the bottom of the ocean.  Dummy.

Quote:

Com’st thou, son, for aid to me ?
Tell me who have injur’d thee,
Where they are, and who they be;
Of the Earth, or of the Sea,
Or of the aerial company
Earth, nor Sea, nor Air is free
From the powers who wait on me,
And my tremendous witchery.

That’s the kind of mother I am going to be.  Did someone mess with you, child?  I will jack them up with witchcraft!

You might like “The Curse of Kehama” if:

  • you’re into fantasy.  Don’t lie, you are.  You’ve seen the “Lord of the Rings” series ten times. 

You might not like “The Curse of Kehama” if:

  • you don’t have the patience for epic poetry.

Final thoughts:  This poem is amazing.  I loved it so much I almost put a dozen “o”s in the word “loved” in this sentence.  If you have any interest in epic poetry, you should give it a whirl.  It’s so much fun.